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'No law can order us': Greek Christians defy COVID ban on Epiphany services

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A healthcare worker in personal protective equipment (PPE) takes a swab from a man for a rapid antigen test at a drive-through testing site, during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Athens, Greece January 5, 2021. REUTERS/Costas Baltas

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ATHENS, Jan 6 (Reuters) - Greek Christian churches held Epiphany services on Wednesday, openly defying government coronavirus restrictions that banned public gatherings including religious ceremonies on one of the most important days of the Orthodox calendar.

Despite a plea by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis for Church authorities to set an example during a crisis that has killed more than 5,000 in Greece, worshippers attended morning services, although limits were placed on the number allowed into churches at one time.

"State orders are one thing and faith is another," said a 38-year-old worshipper who gave her name as Stavroula, after attending morning service at a church in the outskirts of Athens. "No law can order us what to do."

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Police patrolled outside a number of churches but said they would not interfere with services and would use "mild" measures to persuade people not to crowd inside.

The approach underlined the reluctance of Mitsotakis' conservative government to seek confrontation with the Orthodox Church, which plays an influential role in Greek public life.

On Sunday, authorities extended public lockdown measures, effectively withdrawing permission which had been granted previously to hold Epiphany services with a maximum of 50 people in attendance in large churches and 25 in smaller ones.

A Reuters reporter saw no signs of that limit being breached at the Athens church where she spoke to worshippers.

On Monday, in a rare show of dissent, Synod leaders wrote to the government to say there was no justification for preventing Epiphany services. Until now, the Church has largely respected curbs on religious services to limit the spread of COVID-19.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Epiphany is one of the most important religious feasts, commemorating the baptism of Christ and the revelation of the Holy Trinity. A popular ritual in which swimmers retrieve a cross thrown into the water by a priest has been banned this year.

While Greece has been more successful than many European countries in containing the coronavirus, its struggling health services have been badly weakened by years of financial crisis. In recent weeks it has been battling significant COVID clusters in northern Greece and western Attica near the capital Athens.

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Writing by James Mackenzie; editing by John Stonestreet

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